Economic Development Planning Continues with Input from Businesses
Feb 28, 2018 06:00AM ● Published by Pamela Johnson
Raul Martinez, MAPC Economic Development Planner, and Jim Kupfer, Bellingham Town Planner
“Open for Business” was the name of the February 5 roundtable discussion hosted by the town of Bellingham and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) to discuss how the town can better support and grow local businesses. About a half-dozen business owners attended. Officials present included Selectmen Chairman Mike Soter, Town Administrator Denis Fraine, Town Planner Jim Kupfer and Planning Board Chairman Brian Salisbury.
The roundtable was held as part of an initiative to focus on promoting new development/redevelopment in strategic growth locations in Bellingham and developing a unifying and consistent vision for the town. Other parts of the initiative included a town-wide survey and an Open House held at the Bellingham Library in January (reported on in the February issue of the Bulletin), where residents were asked what they would change to stimulate Bellingham’s economy, including their insights on how to create jobs, support businesses, and strengthen the community as a whole.
MAPC Economic Development Planner Raul Gonzalez began the meeting with some demographic information on the town. Bellinghams population has now reached 16,332, with a median household income of $88,460. Of the total population, only 674 residents work in Bellingham; 8,701 people live here but work outside of town; and 4,740 are employed in Bellingham but live elsewhere. The largest employer in town is Market Basket, followed by Walmart, Whole Foods Market and Home Depot.
Of the town’s tax base, 71% is residential and 28% is commercial. Bellingham has a split tax rate: residents are taxed at $14.34 per thousand on the assessed value of their property; commercial/industrial businesses are taxed at $20.72. When one of the business owners wondered if that could be a detriment to attracting new businesses to town, Town Administrator Denis Fraine debunked that notion, saying that because the assessed values are lower in Bellingham, the businesses will still pay much less in taxes than if they were to locate in any of the surrounding towns with significantly higher property values.
According to those present, some good features of the town are access to a major highway and the commuter rail station in Franklin, safety, affordability, availability of space, and parking. Traffic was initially pointed to as a challenge and, while Town Planner Jim Kupfer agreed, he also pointed out that from a business perspective volume traffic provides visibility for businesses. Selectmen Chairman Mike Soter pointed to the financial stability of the town.
When asked what they felt were the biggest challenges businesses face, the owners’ responses were varied; they included haphazard planning of residential vs. commercial zoning and the resulting sometimes extensive effort that may be required to be a good neighbor; a perception of the town’s seemingly random inflexibility and rigidity in enforcing standards; a lack of planning that precipitates the need for spot zoning; and the need for the state to be more involved in infrastructure projects.
When the question “Do you feel Bellingham is a business-friendly place?” was asked, Soter jumped in. “I think we’ve made a lot of improvements in recent years but there are still challenges. I think there are too many boards--I think the Planning Board needs more authority from the Zoning Board, and the process needs to be streamlined.”
Planning Board Chairman Brian Salisbury (right) pointed out that hiring a full-time town planner and changes made to the Planning and Zoning boards have helped with both enforcement and streamlining, but also noted that “part of the problem is that zones butt up against each other, and it’s a difficult balancing act when businesses want to locate near residences. And it’s hard to get people’s attention; often by the time people get involved, it’s too late in the process.”
CPA Paul Gerrish pointed out that there are so many places where residents pick up information, but not all of it is accurate, and noted that the Bellingham Bulletin and the town website are good resources for communicating with all town residents.
Soter feels that establishing an Economic Development Advisory Committee [EDAC] is a good idea. “Communication is a must. Developers should reach out to the public and inform them up front, as Bonvie Homes did.” (Ron Bonvie held several meetings with residents that successfully facilitated the rezoning of the N.E. Country Club property for his proposed over-55 community.)
Afterwards, Kupfer reflected on the event: “I truly appreciated those from the business community who were able to take time out of their busy schedules and engage town officials in an open dialogue about how best to plan for Bellingham’s future. The feedback was extremely useful and will be combined with what we have heard to date from the various community outreach initiatives to assist in creating an economic development action plan.”
A well-thought-out vision is essential for understanding how to best approach industrial, commercial, and mixed-use development in the town’s three commercial areas. The results from the initiative will be incorporated into the action plan, and the EDAC will be able to use it and evaluate the town’s opportunities in a holistic manner to guide the town’s goals and priorities for the next 5 to 10 years.
“We found this event to be an excellent opportunity to hear what local businesses and developers had to say about setting up shop in Bellingham and the barriers they find when working toward development, and to hear recommendations on how to overcome those barriers,” Gonzalez reflected. “Along with the responses from the online survey and January’s open house, the feedback from this event will be very useful in producing a town economic development action plan that incorporates the needs of the business community into its strategies and will serve as a guide for Bellingham’s Economic Development Committee. (Gonzalez may be reached at 617-933-0722 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Kupfer stressed that, while MAPC and the town have completed the community outreach initiative associated with the grant, open dialogue does not have to end. The Planning and Zoning Office is always interested in hearing from residents and businesses regarding how to plan and support the town for years to come. Kupfer may be contacted at email@example.com or 508-657-2893.